Writing in the Sand

Kenneth Leech, whose life we will celebrate in a day conference in Liverpool on 20 May, believed above all in two things: in the struggle for justice and in the life of prayer.  As a Christian, and as a priest in the Catholic tradition of Anglicanism, he saw them as inextricably linked.

SAM_9668.jpgHe would have agreed with Conrad Noel, the ‘Red Vicar’ of Thaxted, who proclaimed ‘the Mass as prelude to the New World Order in which all would be justly produced and equally distributed.’  And with Stewart Headlam, the radical priest who worked in East London at the turn of the last century, who described the Eucharist as ‘the weekly meeting of rebels against a mammon-worshipping society.’

Ken wrote The Sky is Red twenty years ago, after nearly twenty years of an aggressively right-wing government in Britain, and just at the moment when Tony Blair was poised, not to bring the new socialist paradise for which many hoped, but to entrench Thatcherite neoliberalism for another twenty years. Now all looks set for an even more extreme version (although the polls can be, and often have been, wrong).

What can Christians who believe this would be a terrible mistake, do to resist?  On one level of course, we can and must campaign for different policies, and vote for the candidates who promise to implement them. But at a deeper level we need to worship the God of justice, to pray for the coming of God’s Kingdom.

And what would this worship look like? What is the function of liturgy, and a liturgical church, in working for a more just society? One answer is suggested by the liturgists and hymn-writers associated with the Iona Community, such as John Bell. It’s hard to quibble with words like

‘Inspired by love and anger, disturbed by endless pain,

aware of God’s own bias, we ask him once again:

How long must some folk suffer? How long can few folk mind?

How long dare vain self-int’rest turn prayer and pity blind?’

(John Bell, Iona Community 1987)

Much as I admire the sentiments, I doubt if I am the only person to feel slightly uneasy while singing them in church. I have sung them, and will no doubt do so again, but I’m not sure that they really belong in liturgy. In the Eucharist, the regular celebration of the Easter victory, ‘heaven is joined to earth and all creation reconciled to [God].’ So although all human need, all our temporary concerns, are brought to God, the liturgy itself is timeless and not tied to our limited perspective.

This of course means that individualist escapism expressed in ‘Jesus and me’ type choruses is equally out of place, if not more so. So are the sort of intercessions which consist of excerpts from Guardian leaders (or worse, Daily Mail headlines) interspersed with ‘Lord, in your mercy hear our prayer.’

Worship as sloganising, worship as soothing syrup, worship as education – this is not the liturgy as the tradition of the Church has understood it. The Church, in its members and leaders, should and will continue to stand up and speak out for the needy and for the values of God’s Kingdom. But in its worship, just as in individual prayer, it should not preach to God, should not imply that it knows how God should act.

In a world broken apart by human sin, the Church comes together as an assembly of sinful humans not to insist, pharisaically, on our righteousness but to contemplate God’s holiness. I’m sure that Ken Leech would have agreed. He writes:

“Like poetry, all [liturgy] can do politically in the direct sense is to write in the sand, and yet this may well prove to be a powerful activity.”   (The Sky is Red, page 165)

The allusion of course is to Jesus’s action in the incident interpolated into the text of St John’s gospel at chapter 8 vv 1-12. As the woman accused of adultery is brought to Jesus for his judgment, he bends down and writes on the ground. After saying ‘Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her’, he continues to write while one by one her accusers slink away.

We don’t know what he was writing. I like to think he was writing all the various commandments of the Law concerning adultery – Holy Tradition. He was not in the business of contradicting tradition, even less of sloganising. He was allowing the space, the silence, the timelessness to allow that tradition to find its level, its rightful context, and to be transformed by a new and deeper understanding. And that understanding would remain while the temporary, limited understanding of the Law would find its own level as the writing in the sand would be eroded by the wind.

Leech, in referring to this passage, also mentions the following comment on the same story by Seamus Heaney:

‘The drawing of those characters is like poetry, a break with the usual life but not an absconding from it. Poetry, like the writing, is arbitrary and marks time in every possible sense of that phrase. It does not say to the accusing crowd or to the helpless accused, “Now a solution will take place”, it does not propose to be instrumental or effective. Instead, in the rift between what is going to happen and whatever we would wish to happen, poetry holds attention for a space, functions not as distraction but as pure concentration, a focus where our power to concentrate is concentrated back on ourselves.’ (The Government of the Tongue, Faber 1988, page 107)

The poetry of the Mass does not rest in the beauty (or otherwise) of the language, but because it is doing just that, functioning ‘not as distraction but as pure concentration’. As T S Eliot observed of Little Gidding, the end of his pilgrimage,

‘You are not here to verify,

Instruct yourself, or inform curiosity

Or carry report. You are here to kneel

Where prayer has been valid….

Here, the intersection of the timeless moment

Is England and nowhere. Never and always.’

(Four Quartets, Little Gidding lines 43-46, 52-53)

The same is true of the liturgy. We enter into the deep ongoing tradition of prayer, worship, and openness to the Kingdom of God. In the eucharistic prayer the priest recites, on our behalf, the whole of salvation history. Gesture and vesture, music and movement, reinforce the same tradition. There are many parts of that tradition that make little sense to us today, that if applied literally would be often pointless, sometimes wrong. But ‘this is our story’, it’s our poetry, our writing in the sand.

SAM_9245.jpgThomas Merton said that our aim in Christian prayer is to be ‘simplified out’. We might, and maybe should, come to church carrying protest banners. We certainly bring our political convictions and prejudices. We can’t pretend that we would be better Christians if we were apolitical or unconcerned about our neighbour. But we leave the banners in the church porch. We mentally set aside our campaigning and preoccupations, and let God deal with them.

Another image to do with sand is one that is often acted out in retreats or quiet days. You have a large transparent container of water, into which participants are invited to throw handfuls of sand, representing all their concerns. Then you sit in silent contemplation around this, as gradually the sand sinks to the bottom of the jar and the water clears. This is what Merton means by being ‘simplified out.’

St Teresa of Avila expresses it like this:

‘Let nothing disturb you, let nothing dismay you,
All thing pass, God never changes.
Patience attains all.
He who has God lacks nothing:
God alone suffices.’

[Nada te turbe, nada te espante;
todo se pasa, Dios no se muda.
La pacientia todo lo alcanza.
Quien a Dios tiene nada la falta:

solo Dios basta.]

This is easily confused with quietism and escapism. St Teresa was not guilty of that, nor was Ken Leech, and nor should any of us be who, in the words of the hymn, ‘for that country must yearn and must sigh.’

Messy Church

Philip North has withdrawn from his nomination as Bishop of Sheffield. For those of you who are not involved in the Church, the obvious response is ‘so what?’  Many members of the Church of England, however, and many Anglicans elsewhere, know what this is about, and the online networks have been hot with recriminations, tears, quiet satisfaction and much else.

For Bishop Philip is a ‘traditionalist’ who is unwilling to ordain women as priests.  Although he has many female colleagues in his present role as suffragan (assistant) bishop in Blackburn, many if not most of whom speak very highly of him, in theory he does not accept that they are truly priests. And yet they share his ministry; he licenses them to posts  and in most ways treats them just like his male clergy. It’s a mess.

But it’s a good old Church of England mess. Partly it is a result of the humongous mess that was created when Henry VIII, in the hubris of his own version of Brexit, removed the national church from the authority of the Bishop of Rome. ‘Remainers’ were given short shrift: indeed within a very short time they were being hounded and persecuted.  Those who conformed to the new regime soon came to terms with it. But the result was a compromise church.  Although some abuses were corrected, many positive features of the old religion were destroyed, while many corrupt aspects remained. The modern spin is that the church is ‘Catholic and Reformed’; the reality was and is more of a mess.

It was a turbulent and bloody era, dominated by one faction after another, until eventually it settled down and the C of E became renowned for an easy-going tolerance and a refusal, in Queen Elizabeth’s phrase, ‘to make windows in men’s souls’.  For the last half-century or more until recently, the prevailing tradition has been some sort of liberal compromise.

arca de noé

So the Church of England has always been something of a dog’s dinner. The different factions have managed to co-exist reasonably peacefully for most of the time, sometimes by virtually ignoring the others’ existence. There have been, and still are, some hopeful signs that the extremes are talking to each other more, and beginning to understand each other. But then one issue or another comes along which provokes confrontation, and we see the feathers fly.

And like Hollywood, most of the drama has to do with sex. Or gender at any rate. The movement for gender equality has very largely been won in secular society, at least in principle. But the role of women in the church is still, in secular terms, very much in the dark ages.  World-wide, the Orthodox churches seem reluctant to countenance any erosion of the patriarchal priesthood.  The Roman Catholic church, despite the very welcome human face presented by Pope Francis, seems equally far from accepting women into ordained ministry.

Somewhat belatedly by the standards of many Anglican churches worldwide, the C of E moved one step at a time towards the full acceptance of women in ministry: first as deacons, then as priests, and only recently, in 2014, as bishops. But there has been and still is resistance. Partly from those few evangelicals who believe in ‘male headship’, but mainly from traditional Anglo-catholics. The compelling reason driving most of them is their reluctance to go against the consensus in the wider Catholic church.  So it was seen as politically unacceptable to press on with the ordination of women without measures in place that would safeguard the consciences of these groups.

Those who wanted assurance that they could always receive the sacraments from a male priest or bishop, were allowed parishes that related not to the local diocesan bishop but to a so-called ‘flying’ bishop of whom they approved.  At the same time they were assured that they would be an honoured and equal part of the Church of England, and that their priests and bishops would not be discriminated against.

It seemed that the bad-tempered spats of the early years of female ordination, with people on either side being insulted or rudely ignored, were over.  Women clergy were quickly accepted and assimilated into the life of the church; some were appointed archdeacons (senior administrators), others deans of cathedrals, and eventually bishops. Some of the most conservative male clergy worked in fruitful partnership with them, including Bishop Philip North who is the centre of the latest storm.

It blew up because Bishop Philip was the first ‘traditionalist’ bishop to be appointed to head a diocese since women were ordained as bishops. Traditionalist in this context meaning someone whose beliefs and conscience would not allow him to ordain women as priests, nor to accept their sacramental ministry. And a backlash against his nomination arose, despite the express support of many women priests both in his present diocese of Blackburn and in the diocese of Sheffield. Many people felt that he would be a divisive figure. And after a bitter row, largely conducted on social media, Bishop Philip felt he had no choice but to withdraw.

The legislation ensuring an honoured and equal place for such traditionalists was of course a compromise.  A typically Anglican mess. But the church voted for it.  And particularly, the majority who were in favour of equal ordination. The measure would never have passed otherwise. Now however these same voices are implying that the policy is unworkable. The forces that appear to have won in Sheffield are the so-called ‘progressives’ who speak for the majority.  These managed to force the ‘traditionalists’ to step back.

By contrast, those who are vociferously against the equal treatment of LGBTI people are increasingly in a minority. They have been so for a long time in secular society, and most surveys suggest that a majority of active Christians are now supportive. However  within the Church of England, and especially its leadership and the General Synod membership, there is a powerful conservative lobby.  And it is this conservative and vocal minority that on this issue has the upper hand.  Those who dissent have been marginalised.

It is all too reminiscent of the current political mood after last year’s referendum. 48% of those voting preferred to remain in the EU, while even some of the most vocal Brexiters held out the hope of some kind of compromise deal (aka ‘soft Brexit’). Now the official opposition is going along with the so-called ‘will of the people’ and the Prime Minister and leading government figures have made a complete U-turn from their policies of twelve months ago.

Meanwhile across the Atlantic, the policies of the last eight years and even longer, and expert opinion on every subject from healthcare and economics to – most worryingly – climate change, are dismissed in favour of empty populist rhetoric, as the President’s puppet-masters pull the strings for their own (short term) self-interest.

It’s all very Orwellian. Except that instead of one overarching totalitarian regime there are several quasi-totalitarian regimes acting as if anything outside their own ideology is unthinkable. Not just in the sense of too horrible to contemplate, but literally: the alternatives do not fit their mindset and so they are treated as if they didn’t exist.

So, to focus on the issue that we started with. The argument that gender should not be a barrier to holy orders in the Church appears to many as rational and just.  The overwhelming majority of Anglicans – including many who identify with the Catholic tradition, such as myself – are in favour, as well as many other Christian traditions. Many Roman Catholics and Orthodox are asking why women should not be priests; even if most bishops and clergy are restrained from criticising accepted teaching, surveys show an increasing amount of lay support. Nevertheless, there are arguments for restricting the priesthood to men, even if they seem weak ones; many Anglican ‘traditionalists’ are simply unwilling to act unilaterally without the backing of the Vatican and the Orthodox churches.

In the case of Philip North it’s the ‘liberals’, or ‘progressives’, that call the tune.  It seems to me that they have been behaving as badly as the anti-gay lobby, the Brexiters, or the supporters of Trump. They talk and act as if the other side’s position is totally unthinkable. Just as Theresa May is campaigning for a ‘hard Brexit’ without once acknowledging that she was a ‘Remainer’ just a few months ago, they ignore inconvenient facts by dumping them into an Orwellian ‘memory hole’.

You can’t decry this, and Trump’s ‘post-truth’ agenda, and the conservative evangelicals who close their ears to science and experience, while at the same time simply ignoring the sincere convictions of those who think like Bishop North.  Maybe all they want to say is ‘hold on a bit – what about two thousand years of church history and the living experience of the largest Christian bodies today?’ Even the views of ‘progressives’ have developed (well, obviously); everybody has to start somewhere and you can’t just write off people because they haven’t moved as far, or in the same direction, as you.

City or Holiday Village?

Owen Hatherley  is an architectural critic in the mould of the late Ian Nairn. He has travelled around urban Britain in the last ten years, assessing the state of the nation and its political priorities through the townscapes and buildings it throws up (in more than one sense.) He recounts his reactions in two books: The New Ruins of Great Britain  and A New Kind of Bleak . The state of architecture, and of our cities, is reflected in those titles.

I recently re-read his chapter on Liverpool, from the former volume. He is less scathing about us than about many other places, and begins with an enthusiastic appreciation of what makes Liverpool impressive as a city. ‘It is not a village,’ he says, and in the sense of its style and scale, that is true, however much we residents might feel we are always bumping into the same people in Church Street, and everybody seems to know everybody else. ‘It’s a dramatic, great city, and at its centre is the most wholly and thrillingly urban environment in England outside of London.’ He ranks his home city, Southampton, at the opposite end of the urban scale: ‘a thousand-year-old nowheresville’ he calls it.

However the glory days of 19th century shipping and commerce are long gone, and this is reflected in the architecture. Despite its mediaeval foundations, Liverpool has practically no architectural relic earlier than the 18th century (apart from a church in the suburbs and a couple of former farmhouses). Liverpool’s growth and the slave trade, sadly, grew hand in hand. The oldest building in the city centre, the Bluecoat School, now an arts centre, was founded in 1719 as an act of philanthropy ironically by a  slave ship captain. The Town Hall of thirty or so years later is arguably the most elegant of all, but it would never have been built without the money from the slave trade.

That wealth, amassed by hundreds of merchants over many years, helped to establish the prosperity of the city and its enterprises well into the 20th century. Profits were no longer, of course, coming directly from slavery, and many of the city’s grandees would have been horrified if they were, but it is unlikely that Liverpool would have developed into the world city it did without the impetus from this inhuman commerce. And the shadow side of that success (as in most developing cities) was horrific poverty with its consequent disease and starvation.

Be that as it may, the city enjoyed status and prosperity throughout the Victorian age. The commerce and trade that was the source of its wealth was expressed architecturally  in Jesse Hartley’s  Albert Dock of the 1840s, and the pioneering Oriel Chambers from 1864. The middle classes established the Georgian terraces on the high ground away from the docks, and built the cultural palaces of St George’s Hall, the Walker art gallery and the city museum and library. Designed by architects of genius, constructed with the best of craftsmanship and materials, they had a counterpart in the many churches and other places of worship. Far too many to list, they range from establishment splendour through Tractarian  mysticism to burgeoning Catholic assertiveness, while other traditions produced the cultured liberalism of the Unitarian church and the Jewish self-confidence of Princes Road Synagogue.img_0021

The early years of the 20th century maintained this momentum. Indeed the cityscape that defines the image of Liverpool all dates from that period, and shows the strong influence of its trading partner New York. (Although as Oriel Chambers attests, the influence was not all one way). Grand edifices rivalling Manhattan’s skyscrapers sprang up, with the Three Graces of the Pier Head being among the first and most famous examples. Thornely and Rowse’s India Buildings and similar temples of commerce followed suit, and are often called into service by film directors seeking a more convenient location for American-set dramas. By this time the austere neo-classicism of the Cultural Quarter had evolved into the even-more-neo, stripped down classicism needed to suit large scale office premises.

Such developments continued through the 1930s, along with the two cathedrals of Giles Gilbert Scott and Edwin Lutyens (the latter never to rise much higher than ground level). By the time of the outbreak of war in 1939 the Liverpool as we know it today was largely formed. The Second World War marked a turning point in Liverpool’s fortunes, and the tragic aftermath of the Blitz, which hit the city to a greater extent than most except London, seemed to shatter not just peoples’ homes but their confidence. Although most of the major buildings survived, the replacement for what was destroyed was a long time coming. Apart from the reconstruction of the main shopping streets in bland corporate Portland stone, significant sites lay empty and derelict for decades. More than half a century in the case of much of Liverpool One.

A priority of course was housing. Much corporation housing of excellent quality had been built before the war, both the neo-Georgian semis of the outer estates, and the grand Art Deco/Modernist apartment blocks like St Andrew’s Gardens (the only one to survive, now reincarnated as student flats). A new age of austerity (though more democratic and egalitarian  than the present one) meant that most of the housing which the city desperately needed was boringly utilitarian in appearance, with only the slightest concession to Festival of Britain joi-de-vivre. And people were relocated in droves to estates like Speke and Kirkby, thus sapping the vitality of the city. From the late 50s tower blocks made their appearance, and although some have recently been transformed into desirable executive pads, few of them were architecturally interesting.Looking out

Meanwhile the city centre limped along, with a few brutalist blocks here and there, an abortive scheme for an elevated pedestrian walkway, and a few road schemes. Almost the only new building of note in the second half of the last century was Frederick Gibberd’s Metropolitan Cathedral. There is a problem, to quote Owen Hatherley: ‘Liverpool’s recent history is a massive demonstration of the unnerving fact that many don’t seem to want cities, even one as good as this.’

For the war knocked the stuffing out of the city. The subsequent decline of the docks and collapse in mass employment (despite the current docks now handling more tonnage than ever) knocked its confidence. Late twentieth-century Liverpool has gone through a massive corporate nervous breakdown. Partly masked by the notorious scouse humour and chippiness, of which the world-wide success of the Beatles was a symbol, it helped create the ‘two-fingers-to-the rest-of-the-world’ bolshiness which emerged in the Militant Tendency’s control of the city council in the 1980s.

Architecturally they were a disaster. Other socialist cities, here and in mainland Europe, built public housing that was clearly urban, metropolitan. Sheffield’s Park Hill flats or Newcastle’s Byker Wall were imaginative developments that Militant Liverpool scorned. Although (all credit to them) they built a great number of houses, it’s as if they had employed Margaret Thatcher as planning consultant. Individualist little boxes laid out in meandering suburban cul-de-sacs: the Thatcherite dream for socialist scousers. Hatherley quotes Liverpool author Beryl Bainbridge for describing Southampton as a ‘holiday village’ contrasted with the gravitas of her home town. The effect of Militant suburbanisation on Liverpool, he says, ‘is bizarre, warping a metropolis into Beryl Bainbridge’s “holiday village”. It’s as if the city were straining all sinews to actually become as boring as Southampton.’

The contrast is achingly apparent around Park Lane and Pitt Street. One moment you are surrounded by suburban bungalows (bungalows!) with their trim gardens and protective walls, then suddenly you see the bulk of the John Lewis car park and the epitome of the 21st century city, Liverpool One. It could have been so much worse. It could have been a post-modern Disneyland like the Trafford Centre, or a slightly upmarket version of our own St John’s precinct. Instead it is integrated seamlessly with the rest of the city (well, apart from the bungalows); a few original buildings have been sensitively restored and incorporated, while no one architect or architectural style dominates. Privatised and sanitised though the streets are, and lacking in characterful independent shops that make a city, it is nevertheless a pleasure to walk through them. The high-level bridges across South John Street are actually exciting.

I suppose money, and commerce, have always had the upper hand when it comes to development. And Liverpool as a city dependent on trade inevitably created its more impressive buildings to celebrate it. The civic monuments and churches are not so much exceptions to this as spin-offs. But it says everything that one of the earliest, and the most monumental, of buildings is the Albert Dock, built to serve the city’s primary and distinctive industry. And that the latest, Liverpool One, could in theory be anywhere as shopping has become the number one priority of twenty-first century Britain.

But an afterthought. Liverpool has too much spirit to abandon its distinctiveness. And there is one new building at least which offers hope, not just for architecture but for a cultured and humane city. It is the Everyman Theatre in Hope Street, which along with its neighbours the two cathedrals stands as a sign that all is not lost.


Hard or soft?

Not, you may be relieved to know, Hard Brexit or Soft Brexit. Nor is this anything to do with Donald Trump. I thought we needed a rest from all that for a while.

No, it’s about Hard Church or Soft Church. So switch off now if church bores you. Or maybe read on to find out why it might do that.

Bishop Mervyn Stockwood, sometime of Southwark, was once asked if he was High Church or Low Church. His reply, typically, was neither: he had a low boredom threshold and was irritated by lengthy services, so he said ‘Short Church.’

The old categories of Low or High are becoming increasingly irrelevant. This isn’t to ignore theological differences which make the Church of England into a sort of ecclesiastical earthquake zone, and can erupt at any time. But on the surface it is often difficult to discern the theology from the outward expression of worship.

A few weeks ago a friend posted on Facebook a link to a recent decision affecting a rural parish church. The local Diocesan Chancellor (the Bishop’s chief legal officer) had resolved a dispute about church furnishings by allowing them to buy new chairs provided they did not have cushions.  It’s clear that the Chancellor expected ascetic austerity to prevail over personal comfort.

Personally, I find it much easier to concentrate and indeed to pray when I am comfortably seated (and warm – church heating systems having been the bane of much of my working life.)  I can understand objections to cushions in royal blue or bright scarlet, even to heathery green which is more suited to an old folks’ home. I have never seen the point of those multi-coloured tapestry kneelers. But simple padded seats in a discreet neutral shade seem to me just like common sense, especially if somebody is willing to pay for them.

The hidden agenda, though, is what I think the Chancellor suspected. The cosification of the Church of England. Upholstered chairs – then what? Carpets? Curtains? White leather sofas in the aisles; cappuccino machines and smoothies?

It’s easy to see the attraction of all this from some points of view. The caricature of ‘church’ that many people grow up with, is of a gloomy, dank Victorian building with serried ranks of hard pews. Like those reconstructions of 19th century schoolrooms that you find in many folk museums, it’s somewhere you are expected to be well-behaved. To listen and keep silence, not to speak unless you are spoken to, not to express any ideas of your own or challenge the authority in the pulpit or at the teacher’s desk. Boredom and discomfort are to be expected. That is Hard Church indeed.

So it’s not surprising that Soft Church is high up on the agenda of those determined to reverse the decline in church attendance and entice people into church – especially younger people –  by making the experience seem less threatening and more familiar. One of the earlier episodes of the sitcom Rev satirised this with the storyline of evangelical vicar Darren attempting a church plant, importing many young, beautiful people and their casual worship combined with hardline theology into Adam’s far from soft inner-city parish.

So Soft Church – cosy environment, vapid worship songs, casual clergy dress styles – might be a cover for a rigid, conservative, judgemental theology.  The cosiness lulls us into a false sense of security. I know that Rev isn’t a documentary but it seems pretty near to the truth sometimes.

Soft Church isn’t an exclusively evangelical phenomenon. Archbishop Michael Ramsey, as long ago as 1956, saw the danger of trivialising the liturgy: ‘the awe in the individual’s approach to holy communion, which characterized both the Tractarians and the Evangelicals of old, stands in contrast to the ease with which our congregations come tripping to the altar week by week.’*  Many Roman Catholics are also re-assessing the changed attitudes since Vatican II, and without – in most cases – wanting to go back to the old days, regret the loss of the hard edge. The Benedictine liturgical scholar Aidan Kavanagh writes, ‘That it never crosses our minds that a liturgy or an icon should cause us to shiver only shows how we have allowed ourselves to tame the Lion of Judah and put him into a suburban zoo to entertain children.’§

sam_9203Hard Church is uncompromisingly about the worship of God. ‘It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.’ [Hebrews 10.31] Worship is counter-cultural, it confronts us with a challenge. There is a hard edge to it.   Such a church might, typically, be housed in a neo-gothic structure of hard industrial brick, gaunt and barnlike. It will be embellished, but with symbolic aids to devotion rather than sybaritic comforts like sofas or coffee. The liturgy will not be a free-for-all, and extempore ramblings by the clergy and others will be discouraged. There will be a structure, and roles will be defined and expressed in some cases by distinctive vesture.

Yet, paradoxically, it will often be the vehicle for warm and fervent devotion, gentle and compassionate pastoral care, sensitive and intelligent preaching. The Living God before whom we tremble reveals him/herself as the God of Love. If we are encouraged  by the building and the liturgy to pray, we will soon discover the richness and warmth of God.

Because Soft Church tends to minimise the mystery. Jesus is our elder brother, our best mate, and while some  types of theology might have a rather frightening image of God the Father, he (and it is always he, or He) is often a remote lawgiver who speaks unambiguously in prose, rather than the Holy of Holies who draws us into the Mystery through poetry.

Hard Church confronts us with the challenge. But that challenge is to enter the Mystery and to be transformed. Older expressions of Hard Church perhaps tended to leave people at the threshold, quaking before the mystery, and discouraged them from venturing further. The liturgical changes of the last 50 and more years, and the growing self-confidence of the laity, have helped to break down that barrier. But a Soft Church that ignored the mystery would be much worse.

*’The Parish Communion’, in Durham Essays and Addresses, SPCK London 1956

§ On Liturgical Theology, The Liturgical Press, Collegeville, Minnesota 1984/1992


Merrie England

‘Theresa May, the Vicar’s daughter.’  Sounds like Happy Families somewhere around the mid-1950s. And in so many ways that is the sort of Britain we seem to be reverting to.

David Cameron claimed to appeal to ‘Middle England.’ But it was the England of comfortable, privately-educated, rich people. The England of the Cotswolds in their spruced-up-for-the-tourist guise, of neat hedgerows and trim lawns, rural England suburbanised for the metropolitan elite.

Theresa May’s Middle England is similarly unreal and unrepresentative. It is a very southern, very Home Counties perspective. But having been brought up in a vicarage she would have experienced a far from sheltered life. She would be aware that society consisted of far more than the strong and the prosperous. And as a councillor in the London Borough of Merton she would have come across, worked with, and helped all sorts and conditions of people.

So far, so much an improvement. The new Toryism is at last acknowledging that there are many people in this country for whom the party didn’t  speak. It is implicitly contradicting Margaret Thatcher’s infamous statement that ‘there is no such thing as society.’

There is indeed ‘society’ in the new Tory Britain. But it’s a much more narrowly drawn sort of society than is already represented in most of our cities. One gets the impression that they would like to live in the mythical golden age when nobody locked their doors, everyone knew their place, and everyone spoke English. Postman Pat’s world in urban 21st century Britain.

Mrs May is no racist. But ‘Brexit means Brexit’ is perhaps one of the most meaningless slogans a politician has ever uttered. If it gets people flag-waving, it is dangerous. The rhetoric, not to mention actual proposals, coming from the Home Secretary and apparently supported by the Prime Minister, suggests that ‘foreigners’ represent a threat to the stability of our society and we need to deter them from sharing in it. If this is an attempt to out-UKIP UKIP we should be very afraid. The ghost of Enoch Powell walks again.

Time and time again apparently bland or even inclusive statements by the Prime Minister turn out to have a nastier side. Take her comment, ‘if you believe you’re a citizen of the world, you’re a citizen of nowhere.’ It’s natural and right to feel an instinctive bond with the community, the locality, the people among whom you grew up (although it’s debatable whether most people have, or should have, a similar bond with the nation-state, which after all is an artificial concept). But if you think about it for more than a second, our identity is not defined by our nationality or local customs. We are human beings and are citizens of the world by virtue of that fact.

More sinister though is the PM’s attempting by sleight of hand (sleight of words?) to imply that her government is on the side of ordinary people confronting an anonymous ‘liberal elite.’ Of course there is a liberal elite. Economically liberal, rootless, ‘citizens of the world’ like Rupert Murdoch and the very many faceless tyrants who dominate the world and manipulate politicians the world over. To suggest that the danger is in socially liberal, tolerant, comparatively powerless people like Owen Jones or the editor of the Guardian, or even the BBC, is ludicrous. Or that when they use phrases like ‘citizen of the world’ they mean the same as some non-domiciled tax dodger.

The last time Britain (or actually, just England at the time) achieved a similar break with our fellow-Europeans was in the time of Henry VIII. The ecclesiastical Brexit which he contrived was a similar petulant ‘up yours’, to the Pope in this case rather than the EU. And as in the case of Tory floundering after the referendum, he either had no idea, or did not care, what he had unleashed or how things would develop. Henry didn’t want much to change: throughout his reign the Church of England was still recognisably in almost every way* the Church that it used to be. He wanted a ‘soft Brexit’ without the Pope, just as many people were saying back in June that we could have the benefits of the single market without the disciplines of the EU.

The forces of the Reformation were too strong for the Church to stick with Henry’s compromise, and very soon much of the tradition of the past was swept away. It took a long, long time for the Church of England to recover its equilibrium. Nearly 500 years later, with the Church irrelevant as a political force and replaced by more sinister elements, it already looks like the ‘soft Brexiters’ have been defeated and the hardline forces are prevailing.

Again, the inoffensive, even attractive initial appearance reveals something uglier. Burnings and persecutions of both sides soon followed Henry’s initial steps of ‘Reformation’. Heretics nowadays will be defined not by what they believe but by where they come from. There has already been an increase in hate crimes and not just racist ones but homophobic ones too. Intolerance seems to think it has been given the green light.

Theresa May’s father, the Revd Hubert Brasier, was clearly a strong influence on his daughter. She has stayed loyal to the Anglican faith in which she was brought up, and it shows. As most people know, Anglicanism comes in many forms. Father Brasier was Anglo-catholic, and his vocation was nurtured in a church of that tradition. It represented for many the ideal compromise that Henry VIII appeared to want; Catholicism without the Pope; an English Church for English people.

This Catholic strand in the Church has always been present, but struggled to assert itself until the Tractarian movement in the 19th century. Since then it has transformed the Anglican church out of all recognition. In doing so it has assumed many forms. It inspired the ‘slum priests’ of the late 19th and early 20th centuries; socialist visionaries like Conrad Noel, Stewart Headlam and more recent figures like Stanley Evans and Kenneth Leech; it was the force behind the revival of Religious orders. It also spawned more narrowly-focussed factions obsessed with liturgy, ceremonial and ‘correct’ doctrine, one of which was the ‘English Catholicism’ that influenced Hubert Brasier. This is well portrayed in John Betjeman’s description of such a parish church:

‘We are in a world which feels itself in touch with the Middle Ages and with today. This is English Catholicism. There is much talk of Percy Dearmer, correct furnishings and vestments, the Prayer Book and how far one is justified in departing from it.’  [Collins Guide to English Parish Churches, p 81] 

Insofar as this tradition had a social vision, it tended to be a backward-looking one, just as the image of the priest in his parish tending his flock harked back to mediaeval village life. It is well-expressed by G K Chesterton’s hymn:

Tie in a living tether the prince and priest and thrall,

Bind all our lives together, smite us and save us all;

In ire and exultation aflame with faith, and free,

Lift up a living nation, a single sword to thee. [English Hymnal 562]


You can almost picture the mediaeval village with its forelock-tugging peasants going cheerfully about their duties while the Lord of the Manor rides up to his castle on a splendidly-accoutred horse, and the priest kneels in prayer lifting them all to God. A microcosm of Merrie England; a vision to delight a more godly Nigel Farage. Royston Vasey religion: a local church for local people. And no, like Homer Simpson’s dad in his old folks’ home, do not mention the outside world. Or the wider church.

So in her journey from reluctant Remainer to enthusiastic Brexiter, Theresa May appears to have landed amongst friends, on familiar ground. While her vision can seem reassuringly low-key, typically English in its self-effacing modesty, it opens the door to a much more sinister development. G K Chesterton, who wrote the above hymn as an Anglican, became a Roman Catholic at a time when that church was at its most ultra-montane, and found little resistance there to his increasing anti-semitism. English church for English people; British jobs for British people… such sentiments leave the door ajar for racism, bigotry, and at best an impoverishment of our way of life, at worst bloodshed.

*except of course for the tragic and criminal destruction of the monasteries, which is another story.

Finding hope in bricks and mortar

It’s a long time since I wrote a blog post but every time I start one I am overtaken by events.

Now that we are all adrift on HMS Britannia in the middle of the Atlantic, emotions are in danger of swamping clear thought, and I have to admit to feeling pretty seasick just now.

So I will pick up with the thoughts I had some months ago after a visit to London. I find it hard to keep thoughts of the referendum and its aftermath from intruding, but I hope the connections are obvious.

I took the opportunity of an Oyster card and a few spare hours to visit and photograph some of the classic stations on the parts of the Underground network developed in the 1930s. I know, bizarre behaviour at any time, let alone on a grey and cold February afternoon. But indulge my eccentricity for a moment.

The name of Frank Pick may mean little to you. But as commercial manager of London Transport, he played a crucial role in forming and developing the organisation to serve the rapidly growing metropolis in the years between the wars. He oversaw the integration of London’s bus and underground networks, and promoted new tube lines reaching out into eastern and western suburbs.

A major part of his role was establishing a corporate identity for the new organisation, ensuring that it would be recognised across the capital and indeed far beyond, for its characteristic visual style. From the bullseye ‘roundel’ on station signs and bus stops, to the distinctive Johnston typeface, and the iconic tube map designed by the underrated genius Harry Beck, London Transport was a pioneer of what was then a rare thing, a ‘house style’ that everyone recognised.

Pick enlisted the help of many people besides Beck. One of his most important collaborators was the architect Charles Holden. His simple, almost minimalist designs for stations, on the Piccadilly line extensions in particular, were practical, utilitarian, and beautiful solutions to the problem of dealing with massive rush-hour crowds; they gave distinction to the often dull suburbs in which they were set, while they were built in unassuming brick and conveyed a sense of stylish domesticity rather than overbearing commercial pomp.


Holden was inspired by a tour of contemporary architecture in the Netherlands and Scandinavia, where he visited libraries, town halls and similar public buildings. They too embodied a minimalist aesthetic and an ethic of public service; democratic rather than aristocratic or commercial. As a young man his work was influenced by the Arts and Crafts movement with its roots in the utopian socialism of William Morris and his associates. So his London tube stations, like Lubetkin’s Finsbury Health Centre in north London, were precursors of a new optimistic architecture for the post- war years. I remember visiting as a child the Festival of Britain on London’s South Bank and being fascinated by the variety and sheer joy of the buildings there, which set the tone for more mundane developments elsewhere. Council houses, schools and other public buildings sprang up all over the country, and while they may be neglected and disparaged now, they were signs of hope in a better Britain.

Meanwhile London was not the only place such developments were happening. Liverpool, which between the wars was still a thriving port and commercial city, was expanding, with well-designed (albeit in a more conventional classical style) council estates and ring roads.  Suburban railways too were expanding, and many stations on what is now the Wirral Line of Merseyrail were clearly inspired by Holden, albeit on a more modest scale. New office buildings and banks were needed, and here one of the key architects was a local man, Herbert J Rowse.  His India Buildings and Martins Bank are beautiful buildings of great quality, as is his replacement for the fire-damaged Philharmonic Hall which is an Art Deco classic.

Rowse was also responsible for the entrances and ventilation towers of the Mersey road tunnel, opened in 1934.  An Italian visitor to Liverpool recently, being shown these, remarked ‘architettura fascista’ – fascist architecture. To us well-behaved, genteel English folk such an association is shocking. Didn’t we fight a world war against Nazism and its kindred ideologies? However, at least stylistically the Italian visitor was right: the buildings are contemporary with the monumental government buildings and apartment blocks erected in Italy under Mussolini, and naturally shared certain240px-Senate_House,_University_of_London design features.

There is more to it than that, though. There is a continuum from the people-friendly, humanitarian architecture of the Arts and Crafts movement, and between-the-wars public amenities, to large commercial buildings and finally the palaces of an oppressive and all-powerful state. Without vigilance, one can easily move from one to the other. The Holden of the friendly neighbourhood tube station also designed the University of London’s Senate House [left], reputed to be Orwell’s model for the Ministry of Truth in Nineteen-Eightyfour.

Many of the people and communities so optimistically provided for by the optimistic architecture and planning of the post-war years, have found their hope gradually kicked away from under them. The collapse of manufacturing industries, the running-down of council housing estates (accelerated since the 1980s by Thatcher’s ‘right-to-buy’), the succession of governments (from both parties) obsessed by neo-liberal economics, and most recently the hurtful imposition of ‘austerity measures’ on the very people least responsible for the recession and with most to lose.

Lynsey Hanley, who grew up on a poor council estate near Birmingham, has written about her experience in two books Estates and Respectable. In the latter she describes her secondary school, which was comprehensive in name only. Its students were not expected to have any ambitions beyond hairdressing (for the girls) or working on a factory floor. ‘Education’ was a fancy word for what to them was a boring and pointless few years before they were let loose in the real world. It certainly didn’t encourage them to think ‘outside the box’ or challenge them to question their lot or aim for wider horizons.

Many of the schools built in the immediate post-war years were imaginatively designed, in accordance with educational philosophies much in advance of the Gradgrindian rote learning of the 19th and early 20th centuries. Many idealistic young teachers flocked to such schools with a yearning to inspire working-class young people with infinite possibilities for themselves and for society. Comprehensive schools were established because the old selective system failed so many. And many of these schools were and are a great success, as I and others close to me can testify.

But others never achieved their aims, or became run-down shadows of their former selves like the communities they served. And their former pupils ended up with a succession of dead-end jobs at best, or long spells of unemployment, with no incentive to enrich their lives or awareness of the forces at work in wider society.

In the run-up to the referendum, and even more since, there has been anger in some quarters focussed on the so-called ‘stupid and ignorant’ working class, many of them in depressed post-industrial towns in the north and east. That anger is misdirected. Most of those in such places who voted for Brexit did so because they felt they had no hope, and that they had not been listened to. Few of them are stupid, and if some are ignorant it is because they have been systematically lied to by politicians and the media. Of course all of us have heard the same lies, but those of us with wider experience, and fortunate enough to have travelled more, are able to judge them for what they are. Hence the comparative success of the Remain campaign in cosmopolitan cities.

During the last few days, nearly everyone I have spoken to has been in shock. Gutted, betrayed, manipulated and finally, with the rest of the country, catapulted into the middle of a (currently metaphorical, but don’t hold your breath) war zone. There is a smell of fear in the air: fear not so much of the economic consequences of Brexit (though they could be bad enough), but of the rise in racism, intolerance of minorities, and generalised anger and violence directed not at the appropriate targets but at the weakest and most vulnerable. I’m no historian and I don’t know how much of the present situation parallels that of Nazi Germany before the war, but I am frightened.

The optimism of the movement to build structures for a civilised society at ease with itself, has gradually dissipated. Undermined by an obsessive pursuit of economic success for the few at whatever cost to the many. And so the homely environment of garden cities and well-designed public housing has been superseded by the towers of Canary Wharf, public space in towns has been privatised and independent businesses forced out. There is every sign that ‘architettura fascista’ and its underlying ideology will triumph.

Unless we wake up, confront the lies, and show those who have been led astray by them, that austerity is not the answer, and that the enemy is not ‘Europe’ but is a pervasive malignant force which transcends boundaries. However, hope, love and solidarity also transcend boundaries, and ultimately much more effectively.

On track

I’ve often remarked (elsewhere if not here) on the similarities between the Labour Party and the Church of England. Often to bewail the failings of both, while wishing they would be a bit more positive about their achievements. Recent events – since  the Corbyn landslide and the consequent sniping of the old guard in the one case; in the growing battle over LGBTI equality, culminating in the recent disastrous meeting of Primates (!) in the other – provoke stomach-churning despair. Admittedly the latter was not solely a C of E event, but it illustrated the C of E’s tendency to wring hands and mouth platitudes while Canterbury, if not yet Rome, is in flames. And Jeremy Corbyn, for all his genuine vision, seems as helpless to control his senior colleagues as does +Justin. Both institutions need to stop obsessing about trivia and focus on what they exist for.

But plenty of others have commented on both these situations. I’m following a different track today. Literally. ‘Only connect’ via a few junctions and we might get back to the above themes. For the moment I want to think about trains, or rather railways. I recently read The Railways: Nation, network and people by Simon Bradley. It is a big book, chock-full of obscure facts and wide-ranging information. It is a comprehensive study of social history at a crucial period in the life of Britain, the rest of Europe and indeed the whole world. Bradley shows how the coming of the railways transformed our country and most others into the one we take for granted. Time zones, newspapers, architecture (the Victorian Gothic Revival would have taken a very different form if architects like Sir George Gilbert Scott had not been able to speed from city to city supervising his projects; and the ubiquitous and almost uniform terrace houses and semis would have been more locally distinctive without Welsh slate and Midlands brick.) Before the coming of the railways Britain was a rural nation of proud county towns and their surrounding countryside. Dialects, customs, food, building traditions were observably different every twenty to fifty miles. Of course the industrial revolution had already taken off; new cities were beginning to spring up and already the communication network of the canal system was established.

But it was the railway system which enabled the transformation of Britain to take off exponentially. Significantly it was soon established that ‘up’ was the direction of London: the capital city became even more firmly entrenched as the centre of the nation. The main lines all led there and suburban railways allowed it to expand and become for a while the biggest city in the world. London broadsheets could be transported to the furthest reaches of the kingdom, and so local newspapers became secondary to the national press.

SAM_6653Of course the railways had their heyday in the Victorian and Edwardian eras. Imagine Sherlock Holmes being forced to take a stagecoach to Devon to investigate the Hound of the Baskervilles. Soon the motor car would begin to usurp its dominance as the primary mode of travel, and in the same way the telephone, and much later the internet, became the default mode of communication instead of rail-transported news and mail.

Nevertheless, despite the shaky condition of the railways between and after the two world wars, and the ravages of Beeching, they are still essential to the economy and life of the country. Connection is what they are all about. In theory one train could now travel the length of Europe from Wick or Penzance to Istanbul – or even further. The Channel Tunnel is not just a vital link but a powerful symbol of interconnectedness. Whereas you can’t actually see the World Wide Web, you can see the tracks that run past the bottom of your garden or to your local station. Looking at the rails from a remote halt in the Scottish Highlands or a Welsh or Cumbrian beach, you can visualise the crowds and activity of the big city, a matter of a few hours away.

So the railways, while no longer the chief form of communication, make visible this connection. They are an analogue, tangible version of the virtual, bewildering, cyber-web. The internet is so vast that our view of it is limited: in the old days, if  Sherlock Holmes wanted to find a train from London to Exeter he would look (or get Watson to look) in Bradshaw’s Guide in which the entire train service, and alternative routes, would be set out for him to see, and choose the most suitable train. Now, you enter your terminal stations into a database and you will be told which train to use. Of course you can search for alternatives, but it is like trying to read Bradshaw through a keyhole, you can’t see the whole picture at once. There are many advantages to modern technology but the old sort comes in handy sometimes when you want to visualise what you are doing. A map is often easier than satnav. And an Ordnance Survey map of Britain shows how most of our towns and cities are connected, still, by railway lines, and how their expansion largely happened along them.

Bradley’s book is less about the railways themselves (though it includes some facts to baffle outsiders and delight anoraks) than about the way society was changed by them. Another book, A Day’s Walk around the Ginger Line by Iain Sinclair, says practically nothing about the London Overground itself but everything about the way it links disparate areas of North and South London. The concept of the line itself, a sort of rail equivalent of the North-South Circulars, is a geek’s delight, and a surprise success to those of us who imagined that everybody wanted to travel from the suburbs to central London, rather than between suburbs.

Sinclair is noted as a ‘psychogeographer’ (no, I don’t know what that means either). He specialises in walking and describing the ‘edgelands’: those forgotten fringes of the city which inhabit a no-man’s-land between civilisation, lawlessness and wild countryside. Previously he has described his walk around outer London, not on but alongside the M25. For his latest book he moves much further in, around the edges of central London and through the places which for so long were unfashionable, dusty and superficially unremarkable inner suburbs, but which are undergoing rapid change and gentrification. His style is allusive and elusive, and reading him can be a bit like watching a Nordic crime drama without subtitles, or viewing a conceptual art installation. Rather like another London writer Peter Ackroyd, he picks up on the connections between places, their history, and the people that have been associated with them. But read it for yourself!

Details apart, the ‘Ginger Line’ helps us see the connections between the random districts, people and enterprises that have grown up independently of each other, but all share the same slightly offbeat, off-centre perspective of London. The railway, which in one form or another has been there for a century and a half, has been integrated and rebranded as the orbital route of London Overground, and hence has attracted a massive increase in usage (Clapham High Street over 5000%, for example!) The life is there to start with; the connections help to boost it. Just as on the national, or international, level, the railways first came into being to link together disparate communities, and ended up being the energiser and invigorator of them.

Of course it’s never as straightforward as that. You can argue that the London-centrism was boosted by the railways, and provincial centres weakened rather than strengthened. The case for HS2 transforming the ‘Northern Powerhouse’ from rhetoric into reality is far from proven. While ‘Ginger Lines’ can work in the capital with its lion’s share of the transport budget, there is little sign of such bold ventures here in Liverpool where the Bootle dock branch is crying out for the restoration of a passenger service but looks like waiting for ever. And we are lucky; many other cities and regions would be grateful for half the local rail network we have.

Many rail anoraks would be disappointed by Bradley’s book, and bewildered by Sinclair’s. Too much about croutons in dining cars; too little about wheel arrangements and signalling systems. Or in Sinclair’s case, practically nothing about the railway, let alone its trains; much about William Blake and Angela Carter and aquariums underneath the arches. Cue for the analogy with our two other creaking systems (one predating the railway age): the Church of England and the Labour Party.

I’m writing this a couple of weeks after the meeting of Anglican Primates. Big hairy apes might have been easier to understand. Of course they represented a much wider constituency than the C of E, but our Justin, and Canterbury, was at the heart of it and we bear the strains of compromise with incompatible points of view. The church seems to be dominated by theological anoraks who want to keep the tracks clear and the engines running, but less concerned about potential passengers. They are the jobsworths who obsessively check tickets and close barriers; keeping to the rules is more important than allowing people travel to where they want to go. Such people within the church come in all shapes, sizes and flavours, from high to low, from conservative to liberal. But the most poisonous currently are the fundamentalists who by slamming the door in the face of LGBTI Christians, and would-be-Christians, are threatening the integrity of the church as well as denying the gospel of God’s love.

When I was a member of the Labour Party in the 1980s, I used to despair after attending meetings which were more boring and futile than any parochial church councils or deanery synod (and it’s hard to get more boring and futile than the latter.) Procedures and tactical manoeuvres dominated to the exclusion of any discussion of policy, or any actual action in support of justice. Militant were then the most vociferous of the anoraks, but they were equally matched by ‘old Labour’ whose only response was to refuse to engage with them. So stalemate. And cue for my quiet resignation.

I am proud that I helped in a very small way (checking names at a polling station) to secure the Labour victory in 1997, despite not then being a member. But as we all know, Blair betrayed many of our hopes and there was no incentive to rejoin until recently. Now we have a leader with principles, who appears to have a genuine concern to rebuild Britain as a fairer society. He faces vicious enemies, essentially multinational  capitalists and their spokespeople. He is learning on the job, never having held cabinet office before, but is beset at every turn. His henchmen and women on the Labour benches, and in the wider party, should be defending him and allowing him to lead an effective opposition. But the anorak tendency seems more concerned in preserving their idea of what the party should be than in working to establish a just society.

The Ginger Line is an experiment in connections. Connections that could often run counter to the ideology of the current Mayor of London whose project it is. It connects areas of the city that, though in many ways disparate, have in common their creativity and eccentric – off-centre – character. They could break free of the stranglehold of the 9 to 5 commute or soulless obsession with profit. Of course a railway line can’t achieve any of this alone, but it can be a symbol of a city and a nation that is creatively rethinking itself.